Afraid of Church

By Bob Hiller

As a football fan, I would love to one day take my kids to see an NFL game. Watching the games on TV, you get the impression that these games are fast-paced, high energy games with thousands of fans rooting as one body for the victory of their team. To me, the idea of taking the Hiller clan to an NFL game is exhilarating: Sitting with my kids, decked out in Broncos gear, going nuts over huge plays and hard hits. The idea of the whole thing is awesome. But, the reality, I fear, would be a different story.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always enjoyed the games I’ve attended. But, NFL games are not known for being kid-friendly. Though the plays are exciting, without the magic of television, there is a lot dead time between plays. TV offers a better product, to be sure. The main reason I’m hesitant to take my kids to games isn’t the pace of the game, but rather, the belligerence of the fans. Far from being a united congregation, living and dying as one on each play, one tends to be surrounded by drunk knuckleheads who are prone to spill beer on the folks in front of them bellowing obscenities at referees and opposing teams who are five hundred feet below. They can’t hear you, tiger. But you know who can? My kids! Years back, I remember reading about tailgaters verbally abusing kids who wore an opposing team’s jersey. Who wants to pay obscene amounts of money to be surrounded by people who treat everyone else like dirt? I don’t want to take my kids to see that. I don’t want them to see people get beat up!

This got me thinking about why people don’t go to church. It struck me this past week while studying the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 that perhaps this is the reason people don’t want to go to church or get too involved: They don’t want to get beat up! They don’t need another place where, like the woman cowering before Jesus, they can expect shame. And, not just shame that comes from preaching that beats people up by belittling them. I’m talking about shame that comes from a moralistic preaching that sounds nice, it looks promising on television (so to speak), but is a steady diet of it only makes you feel like you are failing as a Christian, let alone as a human being.

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There are all kinds of studies done to figure out why the church is declining, and every church guru and publishing house has some plan to help buck the trend. But, I am becoming more and more convinced that, apart from a few exceptions, worship style, programs (or lack thereof), relevance, or any such thing are not the reasons why people won’t come to church. I think it may have more to do with the fact that they don’t want to get beat up. They don’t need to feel anymore shame and fear than they already do. To put it another way, they just don’t want to be the subject of your gossip.

It doesn’t take a guru to realize that people have left the church because they have been harmed in one way or another. Sometimes, this hurt can take place in extreme forms, like when people are unjustly attacked or betrayed. Sometimes, the hurt is the result of a misunderstanding, like when the pastor didn’t make a call he should have (though, he may have a good reason…). But, sometimes, the hurt and the shame come from the slow drip of a moralistic preaching that parades ideal Christian living in front of the congregation and produces either pride or desperation. People leave because they just feel as though they aren’t good enough for this kind of God and in their shame, they leave beat up.

So, this guilty whore is pulled off the job and placed at Jesus’ feet by the scribes and Pharisees. She is now under the scrutiny of a gospel-less audience armed with Moses. She just wants to leave, no doubt. She just wants to get out of this religious place. But, amazingly, the only people Jesus drives off are her accusers. When all of their accusations are silenced, all the woman is left with is Someone worth coming to see. And Jesus gives her something she’s likely never received from anyone in her life: mercy and freedom:

“Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

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What would a church look like to someone who fears coming with that kind of a message ringing from our pulpits and through our halls? Maybe like an old LA Raiders game (you have no idea how hard that was to type…) A friend of mine, a Kansas City Chiefs fan (see, I can be ecumenical) recounts a time he got tickets to a Raiders game when their fans were notoriously violent. He wore his Chiefs gear, but, much to his dismay, was seated in the midst of black and silver faced hooligans with spiked shoulder pads and stacked beers. A sinner in a sea of sinners. They took one look at him and said, “You’re either stupid or crazy.” He laughed and confessed his sins, “I agree!” A second passed and the next thing he knew they were laughing with him and buying him beers! “That was the most fun I’d ever had at a game!” he said. No fear, no shame. A sinner in a sea of sinners, eating and drinking together and enjoying the game!

“Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

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2 comments

  1. I have a different thought as to why church attendance is declining. It is because ‘absolute’ belief in God is also declining. One who truly believes in God would not miss going to church to worship him. This is evident across our nation and the world by the shift from a faith based morality to ‘whats in it for me’ attitude.

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  2. I think you make a good point but I would sort of invert this. I have not heard moralism in our preaching and I’ve grown up in LCMS. On the contrary, the moralism is outside the church. In my experience, people come in when the world beats them down and some of what drives them is that they played by the rules and still got kicked. There is a strong sense, even with many Christians (doctrine with some), that sins are all actual, that it is all about the life you live. Original sin, a conditions, doesn’t even break into right to life rhetoric with talk of innocence. Catholics and mainliners speak of believing that infants are sinful is, itself a sin. Without some awareness of original sin, of a condition that we cannot choose as we might our actions, we see ourselves as capable of being good people, making ourselves acceptable by doing right more than wrong. Such people do not need God’s grace or church to be good. If they worship, they worship the morality of their god-pleasing lives.

    “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

    Only when we stop being Pharisees and face our sinfulness apart from the wrongs things we do can we come into church, worship, confess, and receive. We cannot hold onto our works and receive grace:

    “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” (St. Augustine)

    We need the Law in our preaching and in our lives but not as morality. It needs to accuse our personal righteousness and condemn our empty works so that we may be filled with grace and live to do the truly good works God has in store for us.

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